Time to topple the hierarchical leadership model

Hierarchical models have long prevailed in the leadership of large organisations. But that model is increasingly being challenged, especially when it comes to local councils, writes Fabian Dattner.

Fabian Dattner

In a climate of rising expectations and limited resources, leaders are feeling the strain of balancing community needs, council commitments, and staff expertise, all amidst public scrutiny. This pressure often leads to compromises or stalled progress, hindering optimal outcomes.

In a decade that will increasingly be marked by simultaneous social, economic, environmental, and personal challenges, the rigidity of hierarchical structures appears impractical. Most organisations are feeling this already. Embracing more inclusive leadership approaches – becoming a conductor of many, rather than a few – is central.

Adapting leadership strategies becomes essential in navigating contemporary complexities effectively. And to do that, understanding staff’s perceptions of what it is like to work in the organisation is key:

  1. Distinguish between Climate and Culture: Understand the difference between climate, which reflects the immediate reactions and feelings of staff, and culture, which delves deeper into behaviours and motivations necessary for achieving outcomes. Climate data offers insights into current sentiments, while culture data reveals the levers necessary to drive meaningful shifts in staff engagement aligned with strategic objectives.
  2. Use Quick Pulse Surveys for Climate: Conduct quick pulse surveys using a 5-point scale to gauge staff reactions and feelings in the moment. This provides data on immediate responses to current circumstances or initiatives.
  3. Employ Skilled Exploration for Culture: Climate only tells a small fraction of the story. Investigate culture more comprehensively through skilled exploration and high-quality patterning. This involves deep listening exercises to understand underlying behaviours and motivations of staff, which are essential for long-term engagement and alignment with organizational goals.
  4. Act on Findings: Take action based on the insights gained from both climate and culture research. Climate responses may necessitate more immediate adjustments, while culture insights inform longer-term strategies for sustained engagement and alignment.
  5. Give wisdom-gathering consistent frequency: Conduct pulse surveys regularly to track changes in climate, ensuring timely responses to immediate needs. Culture surveys, on the other hand, should be conducted less frequently, approximately every two years, to assess deeper engagement and alignment trends over time. Both types of surveys require actionable follow-up to drive meaningful change.

Paying attention to culture requires a change in leadership mindset. Instead of thinking of leaders as those who have both expertise and power to decide or act, think of executive leadership as choreographers or conductors who, to bring the best out of everybody, must first understand how the orchestra views its capacity at this point in time.

Listening to deep level storytelling

Typically, effective listening in this context explores levels of engagement to stated purpose and values, the strategy or community plan and the staff’s perceptions of organisational strengths and challenges in terms of delivering on these. From there, explore strengths and challenges specifically around the practice of leadership. What are we doing well, what must evolve?

The outcome of listening to the deep level storytelling of staff is that it will inform planning for the executive leadership for a significant time ahead. When properly patterned, deep level cultural insights help everyone start to sequence engagement and change in the right order. Executive leaders often start too far ahead of staff and are frustrated by slow uptake of initiatives or intentions; the wisdom of the crowd ensures you start at the right place to move everyone forward together.

Finally, any research output and plans are shared with and validated by staff. They have the chance to correct and evolve recommendations. Everyone begins to feel invested and involved. They are more supportive of agreed initiatives and are more committed to the part they play.

Take the long term view

High quality internal culture review provides significant insight that can inform actions for anywhere from two-four years.

Leaders in many contexts are reassessing the potential to access more insight from their staff and stakeholders. We are increasingly recognising that our world is changing at speed and the resulting confusion – indeed anxiety – warrants a collaborative approach. We need to encourage a broader range of generations to engage in leadership roles in councils, rather than so often electing the same people due to apathy.

If we want to enhance decision-making and ensure a sustainable future, if regional councils want to harness the very real potential of an unstable decade, we will turn to many for input, and become the conductors we need to be. Working out how to get much broader participation is a central responsibility.

Overall, this approach offers tangible benefits and represents a positive step forward.

It is very doable, with plenty of upside.

Fabian Dattner is founder and CEO of the Dattner Group, which is hosting a free online panel event on Tuesday 25th June titled The Wisdom of the Crowd – Unearthing What’s Really Happening in Your Culture with senior leaders from councils across NSW and Victoria. Tickets are available here.

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